Throughout July Swaziland’s King Mswati III – one of the world’s last absolute monarchs – intensified his assault on independent media and opposition under the guise of combating terrorism. Using the prevention of terrorism act, King Mswati III has branded all opposition parties and labour unions terrorist groups, following a series of bombings of police offices and residences. Police raided the homes of leaders of the opposition, trade unions and civil society groups as part of King Mswati’s counter-terrorism strategy. There are no known active domestic terrorist groups or issues likely to foment terrorism in Swaziland. Nor are international terrorists likely to harbour intent to target the country. Opposition political parties and civil society groups deny engaging in terrorist activities, and the police have not presented conclusive evidence to substantiate their accusations. So what is afoot in Swaziland?
The wave of petrol bomb attacks is more likely a ruse orchestrated by the police as part of the king’s renewed repression of political opposition and civil society. The largest pro-democracy groups in Swaziland are labour organisations. Unlike political parties, labour activists are free to operate, despite being periodically harassed by the authorities. Labour groups have been exerting pressure on the king to implement democratic reforms – something he is determined to resist. The crackdown is designed to further restrict the activities of civil society and opposition, as the king closes down democratic space and consolidates his hold on power.
These repressive developments have gone largely unnoticed, with Swaziland barely getting a mention in most international media except for this week, of course, now that the polygamous king’s 12th wife and former beauty pageant contest Nothando Dube has been caught red-handed in bed with Swaziland’s justice minister Ndumiso Mamba.
King Mswati III’s strong repression in Swaziland is often overlooked because of the bias towards supposedly more newsworthy trouble spots such as Zimbabwe, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and Sierra Leone. Admittedly, there are limits to what the west can do in Swaziland because it does not have much leverage with the king. He was educated at the independent Sherborne school in Dorset, England, but it ends there. His kingdom has no oil or other precious resources our economies are badly in need of for us to become intensely interested in Swaziland’s domestic politics. Nor is he persecuting, killing or violently seizing properties, as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has done since 2000.
As for neighbouring southern African countries, they simply lack the moral authority to take a principled stand on combating repression in Swaziland. The majority of southern African leaders are corrupt, and breach constitutional and democratic principles in their own jurisdictions. It is hypocritical and misguided to expect authoritarian and corrupt leaders such as Mugabe, Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos, DRC leader Joseph Kabila, Madagascar’s president Andry Rajoelina, Mozambique president Armando Guebuza or even South African leader Jacob Zuma to formulate and implement effective pro-reform strategies that would pave the way for democratisation in Swaziland.
The key determinant of whether King Mswati III will adopt political reforms is the extent to which opposition and civil society are able to mobilise popular Swazi sentiment, which is largely in favour of democratic reform, to press for change. The prospects for political liberalisation in Swaziland are bleak. Swazi democracy and human rights activists face a lonely, protracted and uphill battle against an obstinate and ruthless monarch.
Blessing-Miles Tendi, author of Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media. He is an Africa political risk analyst for Control Risks. He writes in his personal capacity.